Sunday, 24 April 2011

Green and More

At best the Green Party might elect one MP (GP leader Elizabeth May in Saanich-Gulf Islands in British Columbia. She moved there in 2009.) If the party holds onto the 940 thousand votes it got across the country in the last election, it will further split the left of centre vote and could help the Conservatives win more seats, the unintended consequence  of  "first past the post" elections  and a handful of parties.  This post isn't promoting the Green's agriculture policies which will be forgotten in the hours after the votes are counted,  but recognizing the analysis that went into developing these policies.

The Greens have put a real definition to the notion of local food: "the 200 km diet."  Maritime farmers might want to see something a little bigger (a day's truck ride for example, getting into Central Canada and  the U.S. East Coast), but it's in the food retailing and regulation area that there are some interesting ideas.


"Reduce Corporate Control of the Food supply by:
• Reforming agriculture regulations to challenge corporate concentration.
• Ensuring that farm support payments are farm-based (not production-based) to encourage
more farms and more farmers.
• Encouraging organic farming methods to improve farm profitability and sustainability.
Supports Local Food markets by:
• Enabling local areas without industrial-scale agriculture to develop area-specific food
safety regulations meeting national standards without placing undue financial burdens on
local farmers and food processors.
• Encouraging and supporting the consumption of locally-grown food by promoting
adequate shelf space in grocery chains for products from local farms and local food

This last one has always interested me. IF the big retailers had a row or two dedicated to local production, and, let's go one step further, at fair trade prices (ie. profitable), what's the worst that could happen. Shoppers would at least have a choice, and not have to deal with some cranky meat manager when you ask where the local beef is.  And if it became clear that the cheaper imported stuff was still flying off the shelves, while local production lingered, then farmers and politicians would have to face up to that.  This would have to come with a serious effort to encourage people to see the links between profitable primary industries, food safety and security, and a provincial economy now wholly dependent on transfer payments.  If the quality and value isn't there, then that would have to be improved. .

I'm hopeful it would be successful.  I remember when Maritime Electric offered customers the chance to pay more for power and support expansion of green energy production. Many in Maritime Electric thought this would fail, that customers were only interested in the cheapest price. To everyone's surprise, this program was quickly over subscribed.   And ask yourself if fifteen years ago you'd have predicted  that you'd pay two hundred dollars a year, and clean out peanut butter jars, to support the Waste Watch program. It shut down dozens of dumps, and close to 70% of PEI's garbage is composted or recycled. The system isn't perfect, but most Islanders feel pretty good about it, and enjoy the confusion of visitors to those 3 waste bins.

The big retail chains use "local" as a marketing tool (think of Galen Weston Jr. walking fields with farmers), but on the shelves itself it's a different story. Next time you've shopped in a big chain store, notice the number of products that are "private label", President's Choice, or Compliments for example, and ask yourself if you have any idea where these products came from. From a marketers point of view this is magic, source the product where you can get it the cheapest, give it a label shoppers respect (after years of branding),  and play on the idea of providing good value. Engaged consumers should know more about what they're buying and feeding their families.

The other interesting proposal is tailoring food safety regulations to the industries and regions they're watching over, make them more "local" too. Certainly on PEI the image of heavy handed "health" officials coming down on small backyard egg producers is doing nothing but irritate thoughtful consumers and give PEI an international black eye. "PEI: Home of genetically engineered fish, and rules against free-range laying hens", that's what we want people thinking about the province.  I remember years ago when E.coli  0157:H7  (the deadly stuff) was found in a sample of Charlottetown's water supply (it came from a little used well in the middle of a park in Charlottetown). The province's chief health officer said he was monitoring hospitals for signs that sick, dehydrated people were coming into emergency as a benchmark for how serious this discovery was.  Luckily it wasn't serious, the lines were flushed, the offending well capped off and never used again. Maybe some of the same common sense to monitoring a "serious potential health risk" (as the health officials like to say about these eggs) could be used. Yes the lawyers want to limit any potential liability of someone getting sick in the future, but let's regard these few producers, and the care they take, as innocent until proven guilty.  The people who buy these eggs know  much more about who they're buying from, and why they're doing it, than most consumers. Let's show them some respect too.

Food safety regulators have a big job to do. Large food processing plants have the potential to harm many more people than small operations, and it's one of  the reasons the rules are so cumbersome. As well the huge increase in imported foods is a logistical nightmare to try to get any kind of statistical basis for saying its safe. So lets put time and resources into the food safety issues that do offer some very real risk, and use common sense elsewhere.

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